Father Henri Nouwen was a man seeking resolution. A renowned Catholic theologian and Yale Divinity School professor in the 1970s, he suffered from “and” rather than “or.” He trusted God to lead his life and had severe anxiety. He wrote about the beauty of God’s world and felt deep, unexplainable sadness within it. In an era when debates about homosexuality were bubbling up in Christian communities, he kept his vow of clerical celibacy and fell in love with another man. He was famous for writing openly about his internal conflicts, but even then, Fr. Nouwen never really settled on one way to fit these different parts of himself together.
Even decades after Nouwen, people at Yale are still grappling with the relationship between the LGBTQ and Christian identities. Last Tuesday, a panel of LGBTQ Christian students from Yale College and Yale Divinity School gathered together to share their experiences with other students over a spread of Insomnia cookies and apple cider.
At a time when same-sex marriage is legal in the United States, yet Christian denominations range in their opinions on homosexuality, Christians and non-Christians alike are looking for answers. This panel was the first time that Ichthys, a campus group for LGBTQ and questioning Christians, hosted an “outward-facing” event. Normally, their meetings are low-key get-togethers in members’ common rooms, but this time, the group wanted to publicly address the “hunger to know more about faith and sexuality” around campus, according to Ichthys member, Jessica Wang ’23. To a chorus of snaps, murmurs and loud sips of cider from the audience, the panelists shared their experiences of what it’s like to be a queer Christian at Yale and in the world.
Affirming vs. Non-Affirming
Timothy White ’20 has walnut-colored hair and a smile that immediately signals he’s a good person. The son of an evangelical pastor, Timothy spent his teen years watching his father hold church services in his family’s backyard. Silence on homosexuality was the norm for Timothy growing up: “My church never talked about it, so I didn’t have formed thoughts about it, other than being gay was bad and I couldn’t do that and still be Christian … I’d never met someone who was openly LGBTQ and Christian, so I thought the two couldn’t go together.”
His parents were affirming of his sexuality when Timothy came out, but the rest of the congregation was divided. In response, his dad initiated conversations about sexuality, gender, and faith within his church, and as a result, nearly half of the congregation left. However, as the news spread that there was a church welcoming queer people and worshipping in the evangelical style (think: electric guitar, maybe a gospel choir, and always lots of hands in the air), the congregation’s membership started growing.
Whether or not a church is affirming often boils down to their interpretation of the “clobber passages” — the parts of the Bible that mention same-gender sex. One of the most utilized verses to justify anti-queer theology is Leviticus 18:22, which says that “man shall not lie with man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Timothy calls these passages “sticking points” that can render a church non-affirming of homosexuality. As in the case of his father’s church, interpretations of these passages are the kind of thing that divide previously tight-knit congregations. Just two months ago, the United Methodist Church, a denomination with over 6.8 million members in the United States, announced a proposed split into queer-affirming and non-affirming sects.
On a structural level, a “non-affirming” church is one that doesn’t ordain LGBTQ clergy or perform LGBTQ marriages. It’s not uncommon for a queer Christian to spend significant time in a congregation only to find out much later that it’s non-affirming. In an effort to remain non-confrontational, churches often don’t make their stance on homosexuality immediately obvious. In Timothy’s experience, “Just having even one [affirming] sentence on the bulletin board or website will instantly change how people interact with your church.”
“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”
One of the most common phrases you’ll hear about homosexuality in non-affirming Christian circles is, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” The idea is that a Christian can fully love an LGBTQ person and still believe their sexuality is sinful.
Reverend Jenny Peek, Associate University Chaplain and Associate Pastor of the University Church in Yale (and mentor to many queer Christian students at Yale), says that this phrase is one “you have to actively work to extricate from your understanding of yourself” as an LGBTQ Christian. The phrase gives the impression that queer Christians can only be loved in a conditional, compartmentalized way. As Zach Ludwig ’21, a Yale Divinity School student and pansexual Roman Catholic, puts it, “I think there are much better ways to express love for someone than to say I love you despite the awful things you do.”
For Rev. Peek, the slogan feels targeted. “I think it matters that, for those who recognize that phrase, it’s specific to the LGBTQ experience. You don’t talk about any other sin in that way. You don’t talk about pride or lust or greed or other things – you don’t attribute them to someone’s identity in that way.” The language in the phrase is worth noticing, too. “I think it matters that the phrase says ‘hate,’ because hate is the kind of emotion that inspires people to action. And hateful action, I think, is unbiblical.”
As she deconstructs “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” Rev. Peek thinks about the “fruits of the vine” mentioned in the Gospel of John. This Bible passage likens a person to a vine and God to a gardener. The parts of a person following Christ’s teachings flourishes and bears fruit. The sinful parts of their nature, on the other hand, wither and have to be pruned away. According to Rev. Peek, the idea of cutting away sinful things has been “manipulated, to where LGBTQ members have been cast out of the church and have somehow been seen as people who are toxic, harming Christianity, harming God’s word, and harming the Christian way of life.”
She believes this metaphor of fruitfulness can be just as easily applied to church theology as to an individual. “I think when we look at the churches that say that homosexuality’s a sin, the fruits I see of that in my community are deep challenges with mental health.” For Rev. Peek, the fruits of non-affirming theologies “are self-evident, are sinful, and are harming God’s children.”
Emil Beckford ’19+1 has a soothing, audiobook-type voice and the unique ability to really listen to someone when they talk to him. He’s a queer, non-denominational Protestant who grew up reading the Bible fairly literally. As a result, he worried scripture contained too many anti-queer statements for him to live sinlessly with his identity. The “clobber passages” were a barrier to Emil’s self-acceptance: “I started going to Ichthys meetings and confronting the question of, ‘Okay, if I’m queer or questioning, how does this fit in with those clobber passages?’ Because at my core I still believed that the Bible was the word of God, and if God doesn’t want me to be gay, then that’s that on that, you know?”
After a few months spent talking to people at Ichthys and reading affirming theology, Emil felt comfortable identifying as Christian and queer. “I found new ways to think about the clobber passages and reset the lens through which I see my relationship with God.” This doesn’t mean he gives scripture any less authority than before. Instead, he reads it in its nuanced, historical context. For example, some biblical scholars believe that the passage in Leviticus is actually a condemnation of pedophilia. Homosexual relationships in the ancient Near East were often master/servant relationships with wide age gaps and huge power imbalances. Between reading those kinds of arguments and going to Ichthys, Emil gradually found “peace with the two identities and how they fit together.”
Given the conflicting (and sometimes contradictory) messages about queerness in Christian communities, how do other LGBTQ Christians reconcile their identities?
It’s not easy. For Ludwig, “Being queer and being religious can be very exhausting, mostly because you have to do a lot of work … And at times you can’t escape that work. It’s an exhaustion that you can’t really run away from.” The answer for him has been “finding a profound movement of God in that exhaustion and in that work,” though he acknowledges this approach might not work for everyone. “For me, I can be queer and Catholic and that works. And sometimes it comes down to simply saying that, and not being able to say much more.” Everyone handles identity differently.
“Something I couldn’t have realized [in high school] but have found a lot of joy in now,” says Timothy, “is how much I feel like my relationship to God is strengthened through my gay identity. I have found God over and over again in this beautiful way that I couldn’t have imagined when I was first having those dark thoughts lying awake for hours as a teenager.” He sees God working through “the unique gifts that queer people bring to the Church, which is a certain set of resilience and commitment that I think is often unparalleled. For many queer people who still show up to churches even after they’ve been hurt so many times, there’s a real love and dedication there that I think is beautiful. And I think it’s something that, in the best circumstances, can and should be celebrated.”
Emil goes back to what Jesus said was the greatest commandment of all: love God and your neighbor with all your heart. For Emil, “The major point of peace that came in my journey was realizing that Christianity and being queer are, at their core, both just about love.” Emil, like Fr. Henri Nouwen, abandoned the “or” of his Christian and queer identities in favor of “and.”
And so, when Emil or Timothy or anyone with unanswered questions wanders up to Fr. Nouwen’s namesake, Nouwen Chapel, in the Yale Divinity School Library, they’ll find vaulted ceilings, stone walls and an open, echoey silence.
And if they look long enough – for affirmation, for solace, for a break from the exhaustion – they’ll find, tucked under a crucifix on the altar, a folded index card with a Rainer Maria Rilke quote:
Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign language… Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing, live along some distant day into the answer.
Nancy Walecki | firstname.lastname@example.org